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Suffolk launching mental health co-response program in July

Emergency calls will be screened on a four-level Marcus alert framework.
Photo via Suffolk Fire and Rescue
Emergency calls will be screened on a four-level Marcus alert framework.

Officials want the program to be a third option for people in need of mental health resources, connection to social services.

A new Suffolk program aims to offer an alternative emergency response to residents experiencing mental health crises.

It’s called Medical Access and Resources for the Community, or MARC, and is part of the city’s implementation of the Marcus-David Peters Act.

“The spirit of what the Marcus alert legislation was that a behavioral health response should not be a law enforcement response primarily,” said Staci Young, Western Tidewater’s director of acute care crisis services. “So even though law enforcement always will be our partner, they are not necessarily going to be always the front one.”

Signed into law in 2020, the legislation is named after a Black biology teacher shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 during a mental health crisis. It creates a statewide Marcus alert system and requires localities to draft protocols for screening and directing 911 calls for non-violent behavioral health crises to local or regional crisis centers.

Beginning in July, the emergency response to a mental health crisis could be led by Suffolk’s MARC team. The two-member team, comprised of a Western Tidewater mental health clinician and a Suffolk Fire & Rescue paramedic, will be in service 40 hours per week to start.

Suffolk Fire Captain Ray Willet, who serves as the department’s Marcus coordinator, said while the MARC team could be accompanied by an officer for safety, these mental health co-responders are intended to provide a third option between a trip to a hospital or a visit solely by police.

“(The clinician) will be partnered with the paramedic,” Willet said. “They’re also going to collaborate and work with (the patient) to figure what’s the best place for this person because it’s not necessarily in the back of a cop car or the emergency department.”

That could look like in-home treatment. In more serious cases with a non-violent patient, the co-responders could transport the patient to the Crisis Receiving Center in Suffolk for care.

“We want to be proactive,” Willet said. “We want to keep you out of the hospital, safe in your home, as long as we can.”

The MARC team will respond to crises that fall into levels two and three of the Marcus alert framework. Level one includes those calls that can be addressed on the phone by the regional crisis call center, while level four crises involve violence and will see a police-led response for safety.

“We’re designed for level threes,” said Willet. “Level three is I’m not violent, I’m not homicidal, but I’m suicidal and I have a way to do it.”

Beyond that, Willet envisions the MARC team as a new way to connect people to social services and resources.

“We have people that are aging, they’re at home, and they’re unable to get around and they have no one to turn to to help so they call 911” he said. “We want to be that connection.”

In addition to helping callers with mental health concerns, Willet said he’s been in contact with various food banks and other service providers that want to be on the list of connections that co-responders can help those in need make.

“We do not duplicate services,” Willet said. “Our goal is to go into somebody’s house, evaluate them, and then in 60 days turn them over to somebody else who can continue this care.”

Young said there are tentative plans to expand the program and they’ll have room for a second MARC vehicle at the Western Tidewater’s Godwin location.

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